#Daynotes—Narrative practice, radical thinking, developmental theory & moral imaginations

Friday 3 July 2020

Phoebe Tickell
9 min readJul 4, 2020

End of the day and I am starting a new experiment called #Daynotes. 30 minutes of writing at the end of each day, sometimes published, sometimes not — where I ask myself:

What happened today? What am I left with? What was a highlight? What has left me thinking?

I started my day with a conversation with my colleague at The National Lottery Community Fund Cassie Robinson. It was interesting and inspiring, as we discussed an upcoming narratives panel we will be hosting at Narwhal, with Cassie and the director of the Narrative Initiative, Jee Kim. We spoke about the field of narratives and what has stuck with me is Cassie’s call for new narrative practice — or unearthing of existing narrative practice that can be replicated.

The other thing that stuck with me from that conversation was thinking about who we should be funding as philanthropists and funders. And the need to fund truly radical social innovators, not the same old “shiny social innovation” and usual suspects — those that are driven by social justice, and suggesting and prototyping truly radical alternatives — which means they inherently go against the grain, and dismantle existing power structures, not just add bits of innovation to the “old system”.

But beyond that — what about the social innovators and radicals who do not have a shiny website, who have jumped through all the right hoops, and who are truly doing something different?

The more I thought about this the more something I’ve been trying to articulate for a while dawned on me: these actors may not exist in the social innovation ecology precisely because we are not funding nor supporting them. People have to feed themselves and not everyone has the privilege of following their artistry. The work people put out into the world is always an interplay between what makes them come alive, what they desire to create and what they believe is important… AND society’s feedback, incentives, whether they are funded or not, whether the frameworks for progression exist that allow them to further develop what they believe is important.

If that infrastructure is not there, society does not breed truly innovative thinkers and creatives.

This led me to post this on Facebook later:

This led to many responses, majority from people who shared that they did not feel safe to express radical ideas that went against the grain, in fact they didn’t feel safe to even think such thoughts (both men and women).

One Facebook friend shared these two quotes with me that I loved:

“If we haven’t specified where we want to go, it is hard to set our compass, to muster enthusiasm, or to measure progress. But vision is not only missing almost entirely from policy discussions; it is missing from our culture. We talk easily and endlessly about our frustrations, doubts, and complaints, but we speak only rarely, and sometimes with embarrassment, about our dreams and values.”
— Donella Meadows

The time has come for us to reimagine everything. We have to reimagine work and go away from labor. We have to reimagine revolution and get beyond protest. We have to think not only about change in our institutions, but changes in ourselves. We are at the stage where the people in charge of the government and industry are running around like chickens with their heads cut off. It’s up to us to reimagine the alternatives and not just protest against them and expect them to do better — Grace Lee Boggs (http://www.reimaginerpe.org/19-2/boggs)

Someone else said “I believe it is because life as it is presented to us, is a popularity contest instead of a social experiment. The problem is in getting authority to make things better.”

This has me thinking: how do we develop the courage, and in line with my project Moral Imaginations, the moral courage to think, behave and act differently?

As many of you know already, the narratives project I am working on right now with Unbound Philanthropy is called Narwhal, and focuses on developing Narratives that are Hopeful and Long-term. I have hosted five convenings that have created space to explore new, creative, experimental and innovative areas or questions around “narratives”. These have been mainly for an audience of strategic communications experts, working to develop narratives that respond to Covid-19 from a progressive position.

Here are the summaries of the convenings:

  • Session 1: “Moral Imaginations” session — using the imagination to construct deep meta-narratives — involving an experiential exercise that shifted perception into thinking about the distant future.
  • Session 2: “Mapping Covid-19 metaphors & imagery” — mapping and drawing patterns out of the metaphors, images and language used to describe Covid-19 and the response to Covid-19 — going from narratives to meta-narratives and larger themes.
  • Session 3: “Feeling the Future” — demonstrating and exploring techniques and projects that bring images of the future into direct experience so they can be more fully felt.
  • Session 4: “Detonating Narratives” — bringing a complexity lens to narratives and unpicking the theme of “othering” that can happen both in xenophobic and hateful media content, and also the othering that can happen on the progressive left.
  • Session 5: “Future Wheels and Weird Worlding”— a participatory and immersive session to construct future scenarios in a rigorous way connected to present day emerging changes and led to sci-fi style creative narrative writing.

There are two more sessions planned from the convenings:

Part of this work is about field-building and so I asked my Twitter community about who I should be speaking to in the field of narratives:

The list that emerged has been really rich to dive into, which I’m going to copy and paste into a list here:

Shout out for @DavidDenborough at the Dulwich Centre. His books on narrative are still some of my go-to’s — link:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_J._Shiller — In 2019, Shiller published Narrative Economics. From Nobel Prize–winning economist and New York Times bestselling author Robert Shiller, a groundbreaking account of how stories help drive economic events — and why financial panics can spread like epidemic viruses

This webinar on Narrative & Belonging, featuring Bridgit Antoinette Evans, Pop Culture Collaborative: https://popcollab.org/, john a. powell, Othering & Belonging Institute: https://belonging.berkeley.edu/, Martin Kirk, Novo Foundation: https://novofoundation.org/:

Jee Kim from Narrative Initiative (who will be on our 16th July Narwhal panel)

The Perception Institute leverages cutting edge mind science research to change the way we see race and each other.

Professor john a powell, Director at the Othering & Belonging Institute, and also Professor of Law, African American, Ethnic Studies at UC Berkeley.

I was super stimulated by an insightful discussion of narratives & storytelling provided by Archie Cornish at a @PolicyLabUK event recently. Doesn’t look like he is on twitter but is online & I can provide deets

I’m sure she’s busy but @AliaAlzougbi will give you a great and different perspective.

You may find @wstorr‘s “Science of Storytelling” of interest.

Geoff Mead has lived, breathed, studied and taught it. He gave a presentation at my department a few years ago and it was really good

Hands down: Bridgit Antoinette Evans founder of @PopCollab

Definitely John Hagel is worth including in the best people with experience in it.

Then we started receiving suggestions about Narwhal community members:

Ella Saltmarshe and her amazing article responding to framing Covid-19:

And Jon Alexander who has been writing about the government response to Covid-19 from the perspective of the “citizen”:

I then had a wonderful catch up with Alice Sachrajda about our joint narratives work and the very real need to take a break to regain clarity, creativity and intuition — and spoke through plans for possible future steps in building the field of narratives — really exciting!

I finished the day with a catch up with developmental psychologist and academic Zachary Stein, with whom I discussed developmental theory and hierarchical complexity. It all looped round to the first conversation of the morning with Cassie, because we spoke about the incentives given in our society and education system to encourage increasing complexity in some domains and not others.

This is part of why getting an elite education and going through the top schools doesn’t actually buy you greater complexity: take someone from this background, who has developed complex thinking in very narrow areas, and put them into the complex environment of someone living in adverse conditions and they would do very badly.

This also speaks to the phenomenon we have observed in the Warm Data Lab work with Nora Bateson, that you don’t have to be an Oxbridge educated person to grasp and understand complexity; in fact people living in adverse conditions “get” warm data much more than those who have lived in relative privilege and not had to navigate what complexity really means in a lived / experiential sense at all.

After my degree at Cambridge I actually found I had to do significant un-learning to regain my systems thinking and perception of complexity. During the degree itself I rebelled multiple times at the reductionist approach to learning, the hyper focus on exams and standardisation and the pressure to perform, and the lack of any time or incentive given to interdisciplinary thinking and work… (this is the subject of a separate blogpost I think :)).

Currently I am staying in a place in rural France with 15 other systems change practitioners, writers, thinkers — people in arts, blockchain, law, technology, politics — quite a mix! The adjustment from 4 months of living from bed to desk and time for exercising, to a communal living situation has been quite extreme!

The evening finished with sit down dinner with the community and the conversation that most stuck with me was with an activist friend of mine, where we reflected on what will be important to resource, nourish and fuel activists in the coming years ahead. He asked me when the point would be that I decided it was time to give up on trying to “make the world a better place”… And I realised that regardless of whether it “works” or not, I would always want to be doing the work I am doing, alongside others who believe a better world is possible.

We reflected that this was a bit like doing “social change artistry” more than “social change” — as art is something you do as an artist whether it becomes successful or not; you can’t do anything else. In previous conversations we’ve spoken about “prophetic states” and the concept I’m thinking a lot about at the moment which is the impulse to do the right thing no matter how irrational that is.

That’s all for today!

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Phoebe Tickell — Narratives, complexity, systems. Catalyzing transformative innovation in the face of converging crises, advising on complexity approaches, systems design, regenerative leadership, and education for regenerative development.



Phoebe Tickell

Cares about the common good. Building capacity for deep systems change. Complexity & ecosystems obsessive. Experiments for everything. 10 yrs #systemsthinking.